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The Key to the Keys

Only on the Web: more details on the best of the Keys! See page 4.

To experience the Florida Keys in all their splendor, you have to take drastic measures. Turn off your MP3 player. Put down your Game Boy. Forget your DVD's. Tune out from virtual reality. And follow me.

I'm Lily Erlinger, 14 years old. My family was adopted by the melting-pot city of Miami nine years ago. My mother is Australian, my father, a photographer, is German (he took the pictures here), and I was born in Germany, as were my twin nine-year-old sisters, Ivy and May. Miami is a patchwork of different races, religions, and languages. But if there's one thing all Miamians have in common, it's the urge to head south on U.S. 1,the Overseas Highway. Destination: the chain of islands that string through the warm waters of Florida Bay and the Atlantic to the southernmost points in the U.S. The sun-faded, two-lane strip cuts through the ocean like a mirage. It connects residential islands, uninhabited atolls, and mere slivers of sand, occasionally lofting into astonishing bridges—43 in all; one is almost seven miles long! The first key, Key Largo, is an hour from Miami. The farthest out, Key West, is 159 miles southwest of the city and just 90 miles north of Havana.

But we don't make it down that far. My family's three favorite places to stay are much closer, in the Upper and Middle Keys. It's an hour-and-a-half drive to the Moorings and Cheeca Lodge, and another half-hour to Hawk's Cay. On the way to our first stop, we always brake for a homey breakfast at Harriette's Restaurant (Mile Marker 95.7 Bayside; 305/852-8689), on Key Largo. The Keys are known for their quirky people, and this is a good introduction to them. Take the 86-year-old avid scuba diver who sat next to me the last time I was at the counter. Or waitress Anne Marie, who's been dishing out Harriette's fried eggs and biscuits and gravy for 16 years. Her 12-year-old son, Ryan, eats breakfast while he waits for the school bus. Outside is a sign that says RYAN'S BUS STOP.

When we finally arrive at our hotel, we're well-fed and relaxed, and more than ready to hit the water!

Moorings Village The gorgeous island of Islamorada is home to the Moorings, my favorite place in the world to kick back. The resort's pastel-colored shingled houses, with tin roofs and large front porches, give a glimpse of the old Keys. Wooden walkways wind past the pool and tennis courts to a pale gold beach and a shower made from an upside-down watering can. Overhead, check out the bananas, papayas, and oranges. For us city kids, the Moorings means freedom. We're able to wander the grounds, which were once a coconut plantation. Sometimes, we're accompanied by Arthur, the owner's Newfoundland dog, whose paws are bigger than my sisters' hands.

This is chill time. Read your book in a hammock. Wade in the water and search for crabs. Lie on the jetty and toss bread to the fish. Gather coconuts, and ask the gardeners to punch holes in them for a taste of the sweet milk. If that makes you hungry for a snack, dash back to your house—it's only five paces away. Ask my family where we like to stay, and Dad will say Sifca, a cottage hidden away in the pines that's very private. Mom chooses Plantation: three bedrooms right on the beach. The twins want two-story Russell because they love racing up and down the stairs. As for me—well, I'd like to try all 18 of them before deciding.

Every morning, after slathering us with sunscreen, Mom lets us go solo to the pool—I'm the lifeguard, but she can hear us from our porch. The water is somehow always the perfect temperature. Later, Dad takes us out paddling in the kayaks that sit scattered on the sand. Next we'll master windsurfing. At night, we go down to the beach to lie in hammocks strung up between palm trees, wish on stars, listen to the waves, and play charades. This is a good place to bring dessert: either Florida's best Key lime pie, bought a short way down the road at the Cuban restaurant Manny and Isa's, or Mom's ice cream cookie-sandwiches—an advantage to staying in a house. She makes them with chocolate-chunk cookies, warm out of the oven, and scoops of vanilla ice cream.

When Mom doesn't cook, we head off to nearby Morada Bay Café, an ideal spot to bring a bucket and spade. There are cocktails and live mellow music for parents, the beach and glow sticks (mooched from the cocktails) for us kids. The food is great: curried yellowtail snapper, stir-fried Asian vegetables, burgers. After eating, we watch the sun setand give requests to the folksinger: Cat Stevens, John Lennon, and, of course, Jimmy Buffett. The entertainment keeps the finicky adults occupied while we steal a bit of time to ourselves. My sisters and I ditch our sandals under the tables and run up and down the soft, palm-lined sand, lit by flickering torches.

Back at the Moorings there might be a bonfire blazing in the barbecue area. That's just the kind of surprise detail that makes the resort so great. Look for the small Buddha resting in a hollow of a banyan tree, the conch shell carefully tucked under a jasmine bush, and the occasional crab that wanders up from the water. There's an herb garden next to every house. An old-fashioned wooden swing hangs from another banyan tree. And the most coveted hideout is under the thatched-palm roof at the end of the dock. I call it first.

Cheeca Lodge & Spa When my sisters get restless (all that relaxation can wear on a kid), it's time to change the pace a little. So my family checks out of the Moorings, piles into the car, and checks back in next door—at Cheeca Lodge.

Cheeca is famed for its action-packed roster of events and activities (attention, golfers and bonefishermen!). It's a favorite retreat of President George Bush Sr. The presidential suitehas a giant bathtub and is decorated with autographed photos and other tokens from his visits. We've never stayed in it; instead we get a one-bedroom suite with our own kitchen and balcony overlooking the sea. Cheeca hosts fishing tournaments, wine tastings, a monthly Moonrise Pier Party, an annual Earth Day festival, and lots of other celebrations. The twins join the kids' club, Camp Cheeca;in truth, if I could pass for a 4- to 12-year-old, I would too, especially for the field trips (every Thursday) to places such as Theater of the Sea, natural lagoons where the kids watch dolphin and sea lion shows, and the Dolphin Research Center.

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